Recalling Cycle for Life 30 years later
by Jim Sutherland
Most of us who lived in the 1980s haven't forgotten what a demoralizing time it was to be LGBT. AIDS was devastating our community. In 1985, many Americans believed AIDS was a "gay disease" confined to cities like San Francisco and New York. This rationale contributed to the woefully inadequate federal response to the crisis at that time.
LGBTs in large cities watched friends and loved ones succumb to the disease in numbers that doubled every month. As the death toll rose, so did the frustration of the survivors. Many organized to fight against the national indifference and inaction.
Scott Lechert was 27 and living in New York City in 1985. He watched as New York City's AIDS service organizations struggled to serve growing numbers of AIDS patients. He was also grieving friends lost to AIDS.
Lechert's sense of helplessness and anger, plus his experience as a long-distance bicyclist, gave him the idea for an AIDS bike-a-thon across America – something never done before. Cycle for Life's (CFL) purpose was to raise more awareness of AIDS on the national level, and solicit funds to fight the disease. The ride was to start in New York and end in San Francisco.
CFL bicyclists would be self-sufficient (no support vehicles). They would carry their own equipment and camp out.
First, Lechert sought corporate sponsors to finance the event. But, at the mention of "AIDS," any potential interest evaporated. No company, in 1985, wanted to be associated with the word.
With no corporate sponsors, Lechert looked for bicyclists who could commit to the ride and pay their own expenses. In mid-1985, he began a national recruiting campaign for riders who could meet in New York City in May 1986, to begin CFL.
I heard about CFL in October 1985, and contacted Lechert. Like Lechert, I was an experienced cross-country bicyclist. I shared his motivation – close friends who were battling AIDS. I was also fed up with the national apathy.
I helped Lechert publicize CFL on the West Coast by interviewing potential cyclists, forwarding press releases to Bay Area media, and soliciting local organizations for support.
CFL officially kicked off on May 25, 1986, when 17 predominantly LGBT riders left Columbus Circle in New York City. Our goal was to reach San Francisco 70 days later. Friends, family, and TV reporters saw us off. Thanks to a UPI reporter, a story about CFL appeared the next morning in most major newspapers throughout the country.
The bicyclists came from across the U.S. and included one Canadian. Riders from the Bay Area were Peter Tannen, Jill McIntyre, J.T. Blazer, and myself. Each of us shared Lechert's vision – do something, anything – to change the status quo.
Fundraisers were scheduled in 11 major cities en route to San Francisco. CFL received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from local LGBT communities in every city where we appeared at these events.
While we were not worried about harassment for being LGBT as we rode through these large cities, we did have some concern about our safety riding in rural areas in between. The acceptance of LGBT people, which is common now in the U.S., was light years away in 1986.
At first, we did little to draw attention to ourselves while in these remote areas. But TV coverage of CFL's activities in the large cities propelled the news of our arrival into the outlying areas. Soon, we were met by reporters from local papers as we entered their towns. They wanted to know what we were doing and why.
CFL riders talking to these reporters did much to raise AIDS awareness in these rural areas. The stories that appeared on the front pages of these small town papers were among the best newspaper coverage CFL received.
The ride had its problems. It was a physically challenging undertaking. We were 17 strong personalities who sometimes had our differences. But throughout the ride, regardless of the obstacles we encountered, every rider kept focused on our mission. Seventy days later, on August 3, we arrived in San Francisco, having covered over 4,000 miles.
CFL was met by a huge crowd of well wishers and reporters at the north end of the Golden Gate. We rode across the bridge, down Twin Peaks, through the Castro, led by an LGBT motorcycle group. We were overwhelmed by the reception we received in the Castro. The ride finished at the Ringold Alley Fair in a ceremony emceed by the late Mister Marcus. Supervisor John Molinari presented each rider with a certificate of honor from the city.
By the end of 1986, the nation's apathy about the crisis began to shift. CFL was not solely responsible for this change, as there were other LGBT groups fighting for more government response. But for 70 days that summer, there was continued coverage in the media, which followed CFL and reported on what we were doing.
It is impossible to know how many thousands of people were reached by that coverage. Nor can we know the impact CFL had in getting people to take a second look at a problem they didn't think concerned them. CFL helped in breaking down the national indifference with regards to AIDS in the 1980s.
Astounding progress has been made with LGBT issues in the last 30 years, including LGBTs in the military and marriage equality. As we celebrate these milestones, let's not forget of smaller grass root events such as CFL and the valuable contributions they made to the larger LGBT history.
Details about the actual ride can be found in the column I wrote, "On the Road," appearing in June, July, and August 1986 issues of the Bay Area Reporter.
The archived issues of the B.A.R. can be found at the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, or the GLBT Historical Society's archives, 989 Market Street, lower level.